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In Hotspot Missouri, Infected GOP Legislators Still Oppose Vaccination

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Amid the current surge in COVID-19 cases in Missouri, a recent Facebook conversation between two Republican state lawmakers is telling.

Around Independence Day, State Rep. Bill Kidd, from the Kansas City suburbs, revealed that he has been infected by the coronavirus.

"And no, we didn't get the vaccine," he wrote in a post that has since been deleted. "We're Republicans 😆"

State Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican from Taney County, home to the tourist destination of Branson, commented on the post by falsely claiming that the virus had been developed by top government scientist Anthony Fauci and billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates. They "knew what was coming," Seitz wrote.

"The jury is still out on the 'vaccine' (who knows what's in that)," he wrote.

As the number of coronavirus infections rises around the country, lawmakers like Kidd and Seitz have adopted responses that trouble many health officials. In Tennessee, Republicans legislators threatened to shut down the state health department, saying it was targeting minors for mass vaccinations without the consent of parents. In Ohio, lawmakers allowed a doctor to testify at a legislative hearing last month that coronavirus vaccines could leave people magnetized (they can't). During a hearing in the Montana Senate, a senator said he had read articles about "putting a chip in the vaccine." (There are no chips in vaccines.)

Just as with his insistence that he won the election, former president Donald Trump's attitudes about COVID-19 hold great sway with his supporters. Trump routinely bashed Fauci and infectious disease experts throughout the pandemic and questioned the severity of the coronavirus.

He also strongly carried Missouri's southwest corner in the November election. While Trump beat Joe Biden by 15.4 percentage points statewide, in rural Taney County, the margin was 57.8 points.

Those supporters now tend to oppose efforts to get everyone vaccinated, believing they are being led by Democrats, said Ken Warren, a professor of political science at Saint Louis University who tracks state and local politics. "It's a sad reality," he said. "We can't get together on anything, even fighting COVID."

Such attitudes are accelerating an anti-vaccine sentiment that has run strong in the state legislature for years, particularly with lawmakers from the area of Missouri now facing increased infection rates. In 2018, Republican state Rep. Lynn Morris, a pharmacist from southwest Missouri, pushed a proposal to prohibit discrimination against unvaccinated children. Public school children are required to be vaccinated against several diseases, but families can claim a medical or religious exemption. The legislature took up a similar proposal in 2019. Each failed.

Late last year, state Rep. Suzie Pollock, a Republican from south-central Missouri, proposed a bill to prohibit discrimination against people who choose not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. She claimed the vaccine against the virus had "been rushed" and that its efficacy was "in question," myths that have been relentlessly amplified by right-wing media.

The bill did not advance, but GOP Gov. Mike Parson signed into law a related bill blocking local governments from requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination for people seeking to access transportation systems or other public services.

It's not enough for some. "Now people are pushing back even against the idea of private employers like hospitals and health care providers telling their employees you have to be vaccinated," said state Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Republican from the St. Louis suburbs. "I think that some of the legitimate concerns of government overreach have turned into this broader resistance to any vaccination, which is something I don't agree with."

Late in this year's legislative session, Pollack pushed a proposal that would allow more parents to opt out of vaccinating their children against diseases including polio, measles, and mumps. Pollock insisted she was not against vaccines, but said that people should have the freedom to choose. The House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee voted 10-6 in favor of the bill.

The full House defeated it on April 28 in a 79-67 vote.

"There is a tremendous skepticism about the good that government can do," said Dan Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University in Springfield and director of the Meador Center for Politics & Citizenship there.

Ponder said many residents of southwest Missouri question the motives behind the policies that governments are pushing and show "a tremendous skepticism about information." He added, "People don't believe the vaccines are working. People don't believe the federal government isn't going to come down here and … basically strong-arm them into taking a vaccine."

Indeed, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deployed a two-person "surge response" team to southwest Missouri this month to combat an outbreak attributed to the dangerous delta variant, both Parson and U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, from south-central Missouri, tweeted opposition to federal agents going door to door to compel vaccines, something President Joe Biden's administration said it never had any intent to do.

On Sunday, Springfield Mayor Ken McClure told CBS' Face the Nation that his community was "being hurt" by rampant vaccine misinformation. He said people were sharing "health-related fears, what it might do to them later on in their lives, what might be contained in the vaccinations. And that information is just incorrect."

Taney County is near the heart of the surge of the delta variant, which health officials say spreads more easily than earlier versions of the virus. The county is leading the state with the highest rate of coronavirus cases over the past seven days, according to Missouri health department data. Surrounding counties have similarly high rates, raising alarms for federal health officials.

Despite the spike, just 28 percent of Taney County's residents are fully vaccinated, below the state average of 40 percent.

Seitz, who once owned a newspaper that promoted Branson's entertainment industry, boasted in an interview that the Ozark tourist town was doing gangbuster business after a year of being mostly shut down.

"There were 27,000 people at our July 3 celebration," he said, noting that he attended with U.S. Rep. Billy Long and "he said something like, 'I'm so glad to see there are very few chin diapers in the crowd.' The roar was huge … we're so happy not to be forced by government to either wear a mask or take a vaccine."

Seitz said he had no business telling his constituents how to live. The media has shifted its focus from deaths to the raw numbers of cases, he said, glossing over that most people who catch the virus don't die. While 600,000 American deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, Seitz questioned whether people were dying from the disease or from existing health problems: "If a person is grossly overweight and caught a very virulent virus, did they die because they were in very ill health or did they die because of the virus?"

Seitz falsely claimed that COVID vaccines have not been tested and are unsafe. He backed down on his comment about Fauci on Kidd's Facebook post, acknowledging that the virology expert did not create the coronavirus but asserting that he had been engaged for years in experiments to make viruses more dangerous or transmissible. Fauci has insisted the U.S. government did not participate in experiments that could have caused the pandemic.

Seitz said he had nothing against people who take the vaccine or wear masks. It's their choice, he said. He said it wasn't his job to keep people safe, but to keep people free.

"I haven't had the flu even since 1994," he said. "Why would I take a vaccine? ... My life was normal for the past year, very few instances of wearing a mask, and so forth, and I'm just fine."

Betsy Fogle, who recently completed her first session as a Democratic state representative from Springfield, said it was "fascinating kind of watching the narrative and the rhetoric" in the state capital of Jefferson City surrounding COVID-19, "and then watching it all get politicized and polarized. And then seeing that real-life impact that has on our neighbors back in Springfield when our hospitals are full and our hospital CEOs are begging people to get vaccinated and people just aren't doing it."

She said there was a mentality among Republican leaders "that COVID is a hoax, or that vaccines are a hoax, and that trickles down."

She said she has several constituents who didn't get vaccinated "because they think that this is a joke, and then these people reach out a month later to say, 'I'm sorry I didn't listen.'"

Kidd, the Republican from the Kansas City area, posted almost two weeks after his initial Facebook post that he was seeking prayers because he was "having a difficult time with COVID" and "really sick." Kidd posted again on Thursday that he was "doing better" after the virus "kicked my butt." He did not respond to a message from a reporter.

Fogle said she hoped Kidd recovered, "but that's the frustrating part about it, is that our hospitals, our doctors, our people who are in charge of making these decisions are telling us how severe it is, and we refuse to accept that severity."

She said she makes daily calls to everyone she knows who isn't vaccinated "and what I hear is, 'No, it's my right, it's my body, it's my choice, like, stop bringing this up.' And it's hard to win those arguments."

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Six months ago, the Washington Post published an op-ed under the names of five Republican governors who bragged that their states had stayed open and thrived despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, half a year later, most of those governors' states are seeing the worst spikes in the numbers of new coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths in the country.

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Missouri’s GOP Governor Says Coronavirus Will Infect Schoolkids But They’ll 'Get Over It’

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Missouri's Republican governor Mike Parson is under fire for acknowledging that children will definitely contract coronavirus when they return to school but insisting they will just "get over it," and won't even need to visit a hospital.

"These kids have got to get back to school," Gov. Parson told local St. Louis talk radio host Marc Cox. "They're at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they're not going to the hospitals. They're not going to have to sit in doctor's offices. They're going to go home and they're going to get over it."

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The latest coronavirus data from two of those states shows that the approach did not work.

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Judge Temporarily Blocks Shutdown Of Last Abortion Clinic In Missouri

A judge blocked Missouri’s Republican-led government from shutting down the state’s last remaining abortion clinic on Friday, temporarily staving off a public health emergency for Missouri women.

Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer granted a temporary restraining order allowing the clinic, Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, to continue offering abortion services until June 4, when the case goes to a full hearing.

Missouri’s health department, which answers to Republican Gov. Mike Parson, has refused to renew the license that allows the clinic to perform abortions. That license was scheduled to expire at the end of the day on Friday, but Planned Parenthood sued Parson and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to stop that from happening.

“Today is a victory for women across Missouri, but this fight is far from over,” Dr. Leana Wen, President & CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement released Friday.

“We are glad that the governor has been prevented from putting women’s health and lives in danger—for now—and call on him to stop this egregious politicalization of public health in an attempt to ban all safe, legal abortion care in the state,” Wen said.

“This is a huge sigh of relief for the many patients who need access to safe, legal abortion in Missouri,” said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an OB-GYN at the targeted clinic.

The license renewal was in question after state officials earlier in the year demanded to interview medical professionals who work at the clinic without disclosing the scope of their investigation.

Planned Parenthood said in a court filing that the health department was “unlawfully conditioning” its routine license renewal decision on Planned Parenthood complying with the investigation, and that the state refused to disclose the details of a patient complaint it was allegedly investigating.

Planned Parenthood told reporters on a conference call that when Missouri officials were asked if the interviews could result in criminal referrals or affect the medical licenses of physicians, they were told by the state that such outcomes were “not off the table.”

Wen described the state’s efforts as an “inappropriate and suspicious interrogation” designed to intimidate the doctors and medical trainees.

The attack on reproductive rights provoked an outpouring of public outrage. Thousands took to the streets in St. Louis on Thursday to protest Parson and his policy.

Missouri is one of several GOP-led states that have recently passed extreme, unconstitutional abortion bans. Last Friday, Parson signed a law criminalizing abortion after eight weeks, which is before many women even know that they are pregnant.

The law provides no exceptions for rape or incest, which is in line with the national Republican Party platform.

Women’s health care is under a sustained national attack from Republicans — but the court decision in Missouri is a reminder that, for now at least, the law is still on the side of women’s health and rights.

Published with permission of The American Independent. 

IMAGE: Dr. Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.